- Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century by Christina Lupton
That Christina Lupton’s Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century is best read slowly and carefully testifies to its achievement as both a rigorously researched history and a philosophy of reading for the present. Investigating the reading practices of a variety of eighteenth-century individuals—“actors, clergy, professional novelists, translators, housekeepers, and politicians” (3)—Lupton asks whether, in the modern history of the book, we have ever really had more time to read. Although the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a proliferation of printed materials, the era also saw the rise of longer and more regular work days with less free time, what E. P. Thompson famously calls “time-discipline.” When, under these conditions, did people find time to read books? In what ways did book reading challenge the growing predominance of work schedules and clock time? Lupton suggests that there is no one answer to these questions, and her book unfolds as an analysis of the relation between reading and “making time” in two senses: 1) how these readers made time for books; 2) how the act of reading fashioned alternative relations to time. “In the stories I tell,” Lupton writes, “people pick up books, reread them, and postpone reading them in ways that are often out of kilter with the idea of modernity’s commitment to regularity and speed” (8).
Lupton’s central argument is that over the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reading books was seen as a means of negotiating with, rather than capitulating to, an emerging cultural time-consciousness centered around efficiency and speed. “Book reading develops its own character as an activity valued because it can offset newer and faster kinds of reading,” such as the reading of “newspapers, periodicals, almanacs, and sermons” (6). From a bustling early life in the theater that admitted little leisure, novelist Elizabeth Inchbald, in the 1790s, began a calmer life with more time for leisure reading—a progression dramatized in her most famous novel, A Simple Story. The notebooks of William Wyndham Grenville, Prime Minister of the U.K. after William Pitt the Younger, reveal a careful reader who scheduled his readings and rereadings of Demosthenes and Aristotle. In letters to her friend and fellow Bluestockings member [End Page 265] Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot laments her lack of time to read, always interrupted “with a thousand little errands and employments” (40). Talbot’s 1770 Reflections, which takes the form of short homilies to be read on each day of the week, preserves Sundays as a time of leisure—a time for slower reading. Lupton’s readers include fictional characters as well as real people; they range from the mid-1700s through the Romantic period; and all, in their own ways, make time for reading and through reading.
The richness of ideas in Lupton’s book comes from her drawing into seamless dialogue several different but related fields, including a variety of kinds of reading and writing, such as epistolary exchange, translation, the study of classics, and the promise of future reading; specific, high-stakes questions about the structure and use of time; and an impressive range of modern theorists and literary scholars, from book historians to philosophers of time to social theorists such as Bruno Latour and Niklas Luhmann. The result is that each of the book’s four chapters unfolds as a lucid progression of ideas. Meanwhile, brief autobiographical asides, interspersed throughout the whole, not only formally underscore the argument that books need not accord with any one tempo, but in content, they address the problem of finding time to read in the age of the internet. At a time when reading is increasingly instrumentalized as a means toward some professional end (or else deemed unworthy of our time), Lupton argues that a reevaluation of reading profits from understanding the history of reading and the temporal politics involved. Rather than capitulate to speed-reading or skipping pages, “I want to promote...